Wednesday, 27 September 2017

20th Century Treasures at Towner

Christopher Wood, PZ 134, 1930 (Towner)

On 15 October I'll be at Towner, Eastbourne, giving a talk as part of the snazzy and up-to-the-minute Ink, Paper + Print fair. I'll be taking a personal and (I hope) entertaining look at the Towner's remarkable collection of twentieth century art - principally paintings - and I'm looking forward to it.

Thanks in part to the generosity of gallerist Lucy Wertheim, Towner has some startling Modern British works hidden away, not just paintings by Christopher Wood but also interesting and, in some cases, quite peculiar pictures by less well-known artists. There's Phelan Gibb, who was (according to Wertheim) destined to be the greatest 20th century British artist, and Bus Driver Stockley, a naive artist of the Douanier Rousseau school.

Still in a figurative vein there are pictures by Frances Hodgkins and Carel Weight (a personal favourite), but I will also be looking at some non-representational paintings - it would be rude to leave out William Gear, for one. Vanessa Bell will surely make an appearance, as will Edward Wadsworth, and we will of course include some works on paper. The aim is to spend an enjoyable forty-five minutes looking at pictures. Should be fun.

Ink, Paper + Print is at Towner, Eastbourne, on 15 October 2017. Info here

Bawden! Bawden! Bawden!

Edward Bawden, Brighton Pier, 1958, (detail) Linocut on paper, Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford), © Estate of Edward Bawden
So here is my excuse for not posting in months...

Major Edward Bawden show to bring unseen works into the spotlight

23 May - 9 September 2018

In summer 2018 Dulwich Picture Gallery will present a major retrospective of work by the celebrated British artist and designer, Edward Bawden RA CBE (1903-89). It will be the first national museum show since his death and the most wide-ranging to date, including a number of previously unseen works from the family’s private collection.

Widely respected as an innovative graphic designer, book illustrator and printmaker, Edward Bawden is best known today for his monumental linocuts and for the witty designs he made for companies like Shell and Fortnum & Mason. Meanwhile his achievements as a fine artist have been largely forgotten. Along with Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious, Bawden reinvented watercolour for the 20th century, and a central aim of this exhibition is to bring this work back into public view.

Featuring 170 works, half of them from private collections, this exhibition will explore every aspect of Bawden’s 60-year career, revealing his humour, skill and versatility. He refused to see a distinction between fine art and commercial design, and in this spirit the works will be arranged thematically to follow the evolution in his style and the constant creative dialogue between media and disciplines. Highlights include a display of Bawden’s rarely-seen war portraits, as well as archive material such as his personal blotter, on loan for the first time.

Bawden took a tremendous delight in observing the world ‘off duty’, and the exhibition will open with a wide-ranging display of works devoted to leisure and pleasure. These include a large map of Scarborough decorated with holidaymakers and mermaids, watercolours of Newhaven and Baghdad, and posters advertising films and London sights.

The exhibition will go on to showcase watercolours, engraving and linocuts on the theme of plants and gardens, including an unfinished textile design, on display for the first time. Throughout the exhibition, preparatory studies, drawings and illustrated letters will be displayed - rarely exhibited these will add a colourful personal dimension so the show whilst offering insights into Bawden’s creative mind.

Other rooms will reflect Bawden’s fascination with places and architecture, with watercolours and linocuts depicting Essex churches and Ethiopian palaces. As an official war artist Bawden spent the years 1940-45 travelling around North Africa, the Middle East and Europe, and alongside paintings of the places he visited he created a remarkable series of portraits, around twenty of which will be exhibited in the show. Up to this point Bawden’s depictions of the human figure were rarely bigger than a matchbox, but now he successfully battled his own feelings of inadequacy as an artist to produce some of the most compelling artworks of the conflict. Iraqi Jews, Kurds and Marsh Arabs will take their place, alongside servicemen of different African nations, revealing the range of people Bawden encountered and his warm treatment of all.

The exhibition will culminate with an exploration of Bawden’s lifelong love of storytelling. One wall will be covered in original drawings, almost all from private collections, that span every decade from the 1920s to the 1980s. Another will feature studies for some of Bawden’s best-loved murals, while the last works focus on creatures real and imaginary, including several linocuts from his much-loved series, Aesop’s Fables. Highlights include designs for Fortnum & Mason and Twinings, alongside fanciful illustrated books created by Bawden for his children.

Edward Bawden will be curated by James Russell, who curated Eric Ravilious at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2015. He is the author of The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden (Mainstone Press), a study of Bawden’s 1930s paintings, as well as titles devoted to Eric Ravilious and other artists of the period. Speaking of the show, he said:

"This exhibition celebrates Bawden's many achievements across all the disciplines he mastered, while also offering visitors an intimate portrait of the artist through studies, drawings and illustrated letters. Bawden's unrivalled skill as a designer, irrepressible sense of humour and profound feeling for place will flow through the exhibition, offering visitors a varied, entertaining and sometimes moving experience.”

Loans have been secured from a number of private collections, as well as a wide range of institutions including the Imperial War Museum, the Manchester Art Gallery, the Fry Art Gallery and the major lender, the Cecil Higgins Collection, Bedford, home of the Edward Bawden archive. An extensive full colour catalogue will accompany the exhibition.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Secret Postcard Auction at RWA Bristol

RWA Secret Postcard Auction 2017

Yes is that's time of year again. The RWA's ever popular Secret Postcard Auction is next Thursday (25 May). They're not really postcards, since each work is more like A5 size, but the identity of each artist IS a closely-guarded secret. Well I certainly spotted a few pieces made by a familiar hand - artists whose larger paintings sell for thousands - so if you're in Bristol this weekend go along and make a bid. I think it's £40 minimum, and the proceeds go to supporting the wonderful Royal West of England Academy.

The image above should turn into a slide show if you click on it. If it doesn't work, you can find the slideshow on the RWA website - happy bidding!

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Room and Book: Mark Hearld's Lumber Room

The Lumber Room, York Art Gallery, photo by Jonty Wilde from Random Spectacular website
Some time last year I was up North and went to have a look at the revamped York Art Gallery. I hadn't visited the city since 1980-something and my abiding memories are of wet cobblestones and of climbing up a drainpipe to visit a friend who was incarcerated in a boarding school. Who? Where? Why? All gone...

Anyway, the main purpose of my detour was to see Mark Hearld's Lumber Room: Unimagined Treasures, a curatorial adventure inspired by Saki's short story of the same name. I was curious to see what an artist with such a powerful sense of design and pronounced magpie tendencies would make of the gallery's collection of - not to put too fine a point on it - old stuff. Not long before I'd been bowled over by the new displays at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, which somehow managed to show exactly the same material but in such a way that it became magically fascinating.

Mark did not disappoint. Here were all the usual oddities you'd find in any good provincial museum, from military uniforms and stuffed fish in tanks to Staffordshire pottery and portraits of long-dead ladies. In a traditional museum setting these might have been presented in rows and blocks, with a display of porcelain here and a group of paintings there. According to this model, each artefact is a self-contained unit that relates to similar works placed nearby; our experience is linear, like reading a book.

The Lumber Room was not like this, but was instead a kind of collage, only in three dimensions. Things related to other things in ways that you wouldn't normally consider, based not on what they were or when they were made, but on colour, texture, form. When you looked across the room, from any point, you saw layers of shape and colour that shifted with your vantage point. Yes, there were some Hearld pictures and ceramics to liven things up a bit, but they weren't really necessary. The room quivered with the life of objects placed in aesthetically stimulating relationship to one another.

I tried to take some photos but soon gave up. To me, at any rate, this was an experience you could only enjoy by being there, in the room. It was an exhibition all budding curators should have been forced to attend, repeatedly and for long periods, because it demonstrated that the strength of an art exhibition lies less on the quality/value/notoriety of the works on display but in their arrangement. An interesting combination of pictures and objects will bring each one, however humdrum, to life.

I can't remember whether 'the book of the show' was being advertised there, but I do remember wondering how you could capture the experience of The Lumber Room in book form. In fact I didn't think it could be done. Exhibition catalogues rarely convey the real spirit of a show, but tend rather to serve as a reminder and a record. This being said, there are things you can do in a catalogue that you can't do in an exhibition, such as show multiple pages of books.

Now The Lumber Room: Unimagined Treasures has been published by Random Spectacular, the St Jude's imprint. It is not a catalogue, nor is it really a record of Mark's exuberant intervention. There are a few photos of the exhibition, which serve as a kind of reminder, but Emily Sutton's drawings convey the eclectic pleasures of the room better. Otherwise Mark has taken the exhibition as a starting point and set about creating a book that stands on it own and which offers an experience complementary to that enjoyed by visitors to York Art Gallery. There are drawings by other artists of artefacts, pages from Mark's Regency scrapbooks (a particular highlight) and a photo essay about the making of ceramic horses.

Guess the artist!

Instructions for assembling your own horse...

Hearld plus horse

Emily Sutton's drawing of the exhibition

I want one!! From Mark's Regency scrapbooks

Readers of previous Random Spectacular titles will recognise that adventurous, slightly chaotic Saturday Book style. It isn't an easy book to navigate, but then it isn't the kind of book you start at the beginning and end at the end. The Lumber Room is, like the exhibition, a three-dimensional experience.

The Lumber Room: Unimagined Treasures is published by Random Spectacular - info here. Thanks to Simon Lewin for sending me a copy.




Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Secret Artist

Roger Cecil, Untitled 1 (MOMA Machynlleth, copyright artist estate)
One of my great pleasures is to find an artist I know nothing about. Come to think of it, I also enjoy helping other people discover artists they might not otherwise know. Once I was at Bristol Central Library, home of one of the country's best (and probably least used) non-university art libraries, and asked to see all the books they had on Ben and Winifred Nicholson. The Bens came out on a trolley, a great stack of massive, scholarly tomes. On top was one slim volume devoted to his first wife and lifelong correspondent. You can probably imagine which book I seized first, and not only because the Bens weighed twenty pounds each.

Under-appreciation attracted me to Ravilious, to Peggy Angus and to other artists I've written and lectured about. It's partly perversity, partly curiosity. There's pleasure to be had in finding a new angle on a well-known story, but to me you can't beat a new(ish) story: the drawings pulled out of a folder that has languished for years in an attic; the archive boxes stuffed with previously unseen treasures; the watercolour on the landing that was shown in 19-something and has not been seen since. The signature. The date. The faded label on the back.

So my first feeling when I opened a *surprise package* to find a copy of Peter Wakelin's lovely book 'Roger Cecil: A Secret Artist' was, I'm sorry to admit, jealousy. Damn! Another one found, and not by me!

Roger Cecil, Shaman Secret (MOMA Machynlleth, copyright artist estate)
Then came perplexity. Cecil's is not the kind of painting I immediately respond to, especially in reproduction. Besides, I really had never heard of him. And he hadn't troubled the critics all that much in his lifetime (he died in 2015). But when I sat down one evening and read the book I was fascinated. Cecil was the genuine article, a pure artist if you like. Someone who turned his back on the Royal College of Art and the London art scene of the 1960s so that he could focus on painting his way. An artist so devoted to his craft that he spent his whole life in the same house in Abertillery, a coal-mining town in the Ebbw Fach valley, and simply painted.

Peter's straightforward approach and clear prose are ideally suited to the subject, and he talks as engagingly about specific paintings as he does about the vicissitudes of Cecil's life. Romantic involvements are left to our imagination, perhaps out of respect for those still living, but I loved following the progress of this artist's life, the way he gradually altered his childhood home so that it eventually became mostly studio and only partly house, and the way his work evolved over time in near-isolation.

Not total isolation, though. It emerges in the narrative that Cecil was the subject not just of one, but of two BBC films, the first exploring his decision to turn down an RCA scholarship in 1964. He also showed his paintings regularly and sold a great many of them. Nor was he immune to outside influence. You can see traces of other artists' work, notably (to my mind) Peter Lanyon and Roger Hilton, and the paintings are firmly of their time. But so what? They're still interesting and often beautiful, and between now and June you can go and see a good selection of them at MOMA Machynlleth, Wales.

'Roger Cecil: Inside the Studio' is at MOMA Machynlleth until 24 June.
'Roger Cecil: A Secret Artist' is published by Sansom and Co.